Budapest to the Black Sea

Budapest to the Black Sea

Friday, 31 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Days 13 & 14 Vienna

I like Vienna. That's why there are two non-cycling days in my schedule here, but first, before I plunge into the cultural whirlpool, I have to attend to Doris. I google 'bicycle repair Vienna' and up comes the Vienna Bike Kitchen. Here are some quotes from their website.
 "Our legal basis is a club/association but we see ourselves as a non-hierarchical, open collective."
 "In the bikekitchen you can repair and destroy bikes, disassemble them and build choppers (tallbikes, longbikes, transportbikes, trailers..), drink tea, beer, make toast or cook for everyone and ride to the demo together."
"important keywords:
anticapitalist , feminist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, collective, plenum, consensus, Criticalmass, DIY, solidarity, Stencil, dumpster, bar, literature, archive, bike-fetishism, bike-art, bike-fun, bike-kill, jousting, bikepolo, nightrides, demoperformance, actions, screenprinting, workshops, excursions, caravans, making and watching videos, collecting scrap, reading group, concerts, DJing, experiments of any kind...."
You will be surprised to hear that, after pondering what bike-fetishism might involve, I scrolled down further to "die Radwerkstatt" where they appear to fix bikes. It was a ten minute run the wrong way down a one way street from my hotel. A sweet man said he would do all that was necessary to fix Doris in an unhierarchical way and that this would be done in twenty four hours.

One other errand remained before I hit the galleries. I need to work out how to get home from Budapest and I need to book some tickets. I go to the Westbahnhof ticket office and ask can I book a first class sleeper from Budapest to Munich. Yes I can, indeed there is a very good special offer available. Can I take my bicycle on that train? No I can't. I thank the booking clerk for his help and go out to pace up and down the concourse. What to do with Doris? I could go by daytime trains but that doesn't quite fit in with my schedule and in any case I love sleepers. I could store Doris in Budapest until I return for the second leg in the autumn or I could sell her. Cynical readers might say at this point that if I am free of Doris then I could fly back by easyJet but if you think that then you definitely haven't been paying attention. So I return to the booking clerk and spend umpteen times what an easyJet flight would cost on trains via Munich, Cologne and Paris.

I buy myself a 48 hour city travel pass and head for the Museum Quarter. I start with the Leopold Collection which is based on a single collection accumulated by a Prof Leopold who starting buying Schiele's and Klimts in the 1950s. Fifty years later he sold his collection to the state for around 170 million euros (the market value at the time was 575 million euros) and a gallery was built to house it. A great collection, there are other unrelated exhibitions as well, but worth the ticket for the Schieles alone. I do the Architectural Museum, which is splendid but would take me several years to take in. Finally in this cultural splurge I do MUMOC, the Museum of Modern Art, which is only partially open due to rehangs. It's mostly poor stuff and I leave uninspired. In the evening I have an invitation to a record release party from an old friend Andy Rescheneder, who I worked with on the German version of We Will Rock You. The party is in the Club Francais in Wahringerstrasse and I worry that my crumpled straight out of the dryer look will not be acceptable but It's casual casual. The artist, who Andy is managing, is a very pretty girl with a great voice called Soe Tolloy. I think that she is rather good so let's go viral for Soe Tolloy. See her on U Tube etc.

Next day an early morning stop to pick up Doris from A & E which goes without a hitch. I can't face the Vienna traffic on a bike so I leave her at the hotel and set off on yet another cultural sortie to the Albertina which is a collection that specialises in graphics and has stuff by Bosch, a Breughel, Rubens and Rembrandt. There is some conventional painting, Picasso, Monet etc and some Royal Apartments which looked the same as every Royal Apartment that you have ever visited. Royals have no imagination, particularly those inbred Hapsburgs. Finally there was a massive exhibition of the work of Gottfried Helnwein, who is apparently Austria's best known contemporary artist, whose main concerns seem to be in dental discomfort and little girls in unhappy situations.
The rest of the day is loafing and sitting in cafes and it is this aspect of Vienna that attracts me most though I had no idea how much we all owe to the Viennese cafe society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century until I read Clive James's Cultural Amnesia, which is a collection of biographical and related pieces about some of the great women and men of our recent past. Many of the subjects started their careers and indeed some spent their entire careers in Vienna's Cafe Central and similar establishments, writers, musicians, philosophers, artists, doctors, scientists, many of them Jewish, excluded from the top university jobs by discriminatory Austrian regulations and quotas, fed off each other's intellects and  went on to enrich our lives. When it all went wrong in 1938, when the Nazis arrived, those that got out went on to write film scores in Hollywood or write philosophy in New Zealand, those that didn't get out died in the camps. So this is the background that, for me at least, makes Vienna a greater city than even Paris and at a much more mundane level explains why the bar called Schilling, which is fifty metres from my hotel, is one of my all time favourites. I went there only because I heard the hotel receptionist recommend it and because it was only fifty metres away. Wood panelled throughout, with sturdy tables and chairs that no one designed but someone thought about before they bought them, with no music, no TV, but with a magazine rack that doesn't carry the International Herald Tribune or Figaro but does hold the Austrian versions of Grazia and Motorcycle Monthly, things that locals might like to read with their morning coffee. The only advertising I could see on the premises was on the beer mats, in fact on the panelled walls there was no decoration whatsoever, just hefty coat hooks above each place to cope with a winter night's influx of well wrapped customers. The food was traditional, unimaginative and excellent, a plate of liver is just the job after a days cycling. I spent three evenings there, drinking beer, eating supper and writing this blog. Perfect.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 12 - Krems to Vienna (82km)

A sunny Sunday, with a long freewheel down from Senftenberg to Krems. With this addition to my scheduled kilometerage this makes the ride to Vienna 90 km. I take a couple of false turns leaving Krems but eventually get on track and most of the day's ride is right on the banks of the Danube. Doris is making hideous noises and eventually I work out that if I wedge a piece of wood in the right place and only use the lower gear ratios then the chain will stop trying to grind its way through the guide. Those who have worked with me on stage will understand my approach to the problem.

Pedalling relatively silently I am delighted to meet a French couple who I haven't seen for a couple of days. We stop and chat in prep-school French, later I meet a Dutch couple that I have been playing leapfrog with along the Path for several days. Apart from them the path is relatively deserted and the scenery no more than pleasant, certainly not spectacular as it was the day before. Then we get to Tulln which is famous for two things, the painter Egon Schiele was born there and in legend, in The Song of the Nibelungs, Kriemhild meets Attila. There is a museum to commemorate the former and a sculpture to illustrate the latter. It is a very literal imagining of the occasion showing a pretty medieval maiden picking up her skirts, stepping forward to meet her husband. Behind the happy couple are groups of faithful retainers. Nearly every town that I have passed through have these kitsch sculptural groups, a sweet little girl being presented with a letter by the postman, a pair of chubby peasants chasing a pig and depressingly they are all relatively new. I do stop to visit the Schiele museum which is tiny but interesting. In the first room, relating to his childhood, there is a glass case containing late nineteenth century model trains. Excellent and it turns out that Schiele came from a long line of railwaymen and if he hadn't decided to dedicate his life to painting full frontal portraits with rather too much attention to genitalia he might have ended up managing some section of the Austro-Hungarian railway system. Apart from the trains there are some very early works but also a good leaflet describing his youthful ups and downs including his short time in jail for painting under age nude girls. I am a fan and look forward to seeing more of his work in Vienna.

From Tulln to Vienna is about 40 km and after about 15 km I find that my front tyre is flat. I pump it up again and keep going for about 5 km before it needs to be pumped up. I have a slow puncture. I have two spare inner tubes with me but decide to press on with regular pumping partly because I don't want to be too late in Vienna and partly because I have never changed an inner tube in my life.

Doris and I limp into Vienna along the Danube canal which delivers us, somewhat disorientatingly, to the very centre of the city, the Ringstrasse. After twelve days cycling along a nearly deserted Danube Path in rural surroundings suddenly we are weaving past trams and trying to follow a maze of cycle tracks to the hotel. We succeed and the hotel is basic but convenient and the first question I ask the receptionist is "Is there a laundromat nearby?" Of course there is. Three streets away and if I had thought about it beforehand I would have stripped down to just my lycra shorts and got someone to take a photo of me sitting in front of the dryers like the bloke in his boxers in the old Levis (?) commercial. Sadly that fundraising opportunity for the Alzheimer's Society was missed. After an eternity of tumble drying I follow the receptionist's advice and eat at Schilling's on the corner fifty metres from the hotel. An experience to be described tomorrow. A cliffhanger at last.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 11 - Persenbeug to Krems (70 km)

Yet another rainy start but by the time I had reached Pochlarn it had eased up and I stopped to visit the birthplace of one of the best known of Austrian artists, Oskar Kokoshka. I am not a big fan of OK but there was an exhibition of photographs and, as always, images of the artist as a young man in the twenties and thirties have some charm. In those days the word 'louche' rather went with 'art school' in a way that I think it doesn't now. It took me all of twenty minutes to whisk round the gallery and saddle up again. Doris is starting to make scraping, graunching noises and I stop to try and remedy the problem but just make it worse.

Coffee in Melk, a pretty cobbled town with etc, etc. By now I am in the Wachau, an exceptionally attractive section of the Danube path, where the valley sides are dotted with vineyards and ruined castles. In the afternoon the sun is out and for once I stop thinking of 'pressing on'  and cycle slowly along the rivers edge, weaving amongst the tourists by the landing stages where the tour boats tie up. It is almost magical and some psychologist will no doubt be able to explain the effect of moving water on the human spirit, in any case it is probably the best afternoon of the ride.

I coast smugly into Krems at around 5.00, which is where I am booked in for the night, freewheel gently along a long, long narrow street passing a wedding as I go. All the guests in pairs were being photographed inside a golden papier-mache frame. Then the happy couple in a limo would lead a tooting motorcade around the town. As I got near the town centre I stopped to consult my hotel booking confirmation from Booknow&  and then my map. My hotel was in Untermarkt and while I couldn't see an Untermarkt on the map there was a Hohermarkt and I assumed that I should simply go to the street down the hill from there. That didn't work and I consulted the booking confirmation. I had failed to notice the word Senftenberg under Untermarkt. I had in fact booked a hotel not in Krems at all. Perhaps I was booked into somewhere near Hamburg or Leipzig. I consulted a local taxi driver and he reassured me that Senftenberg was a mere 10km to the north of Krems. I pedalled wearily up the hill but Senfentenberg was a pretty place with a jolly hotelier to greet me. I spent the evening in a packed local pub watching the Champions' League Final. The locals seemed split about fifty-fifty between Bayern and Dortmund but there was no real needle in the evening to relish. Depressing that Arjen Robben scored the winner, he always gives me the impression of being a mean spirit however talented a footballer he is.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 10 - Linz to Persenbeug (81 km)

Bitterly cold and wet. The breakfast in the hotel is 15 euros so Doris and I take ourselves off to a bakery/cafe in the town and have excellent fresh rolls etc. The scenery today is as dull as the weather and the only place of note that we pass through is Mauthausen, the site of one of the Nazis toughest camps, reserved from the outset for "incorrigible enemies of the Reich". There are remains of the camp and memorials but in the driving rain I don't stop.

The rain does stop as I get to Grein at lunchtime and of all the Danube towns so far it is my favourite. Perhaps for technical and flood necessity reasons most of them ignore the river and are set back a little. Grein elegantly faces out towards the south bank and could almost be said to have a promenade. I have to cross by ferry here but no negotiation required, a cheerful young pilot who tells me that he was brought up in Grein and that he loves it here. I didn't ask "what do you do in the winter?" But what do they do in the winter? No skiing nearby, no cyclists in May let alone February. God knows. One thing I do notice that you almost never see anyone with a mobile phone in their hand, that hasn't arrived yet, but that might just be that reception in some of these valleys is so bad that there is no point.

So on a dull day with not much to relate here is a typical cyclist's day on the Danube:

05.00 Wake, wonder where wife is, realise bed too narrow/short/hard/soft. Realise that I am in crap hotel. Go back to sleep.
06.00 Wake, wonder where wife is, realise bed too narrow/short/hard/soft. Realise that I am in crap hotel.Go back to sleep.
06.30 Get up. Try and find something that doesn't smell like a camel's backside to wear.
07.00 Breakfast. Eat an identical breakfast to the last 10 days. There really is no difference wherever you stay.
07.30 Repack pannier bags. After ten days I am no closer to establishing a system by which one contains clean and the other dirty. This process is the most irritating part of the day
08.00 Pay the bill, reassure proprietor that theirs is the finest hotel on the river and that you will certainly leave glowing feedback on Booknow& Set off.
08.10 Panic that I have left phone behind. Stop and search everywhere until I find it in its normal place in my right trouser pocket.
08.20 Panic that I have left the I Pad behind. Stop and search everywhere until I find it in its normal place in the saddle bag.
08.22 Head down and concentrate on cracking out some kilometres.
08.30 Stop to consult map as to where might be a good place to stop for coffee.
09.30 Arrive at possible coffee stop but decide to press on.
09.45 Arrive at another possible coffee stop but decide to press on
10.15 Desperate for coffee but consultation with map tells me that there is no significant human settlement for 15 kilometres
11.30 Stop for coffee and croissant
11.45 Start again. This session is normally the most productive of the day. Set the gears to Gas Mark 8 and go like hell.
11.50 Wonder if it's too early for beer
13.00 Knees, arse, wrists and back starting to hurt, but gamely press on.
14.00 More bits starting to hurt. Start looking for somewhere to stop for lunch. Beer fantasies rampant.
14.30 Lunch and beer
15.30 Set off again
16.00 Starts to rain. Stop to put on waterproofs. Can't find waterproof trousers. End up unpacking both panniers in bus shelter watched by two disapproving old ladies.
16.30 Realise that I am within 10 km of the hotel for the night in Kleine Schmetterling im Wald and that there will be absolutely nothing to do there and that I may as well stop for more beer.
17.30 Arrive at hotel in rain. Exchange pleasantries with proprietor before lugging bags up to room. Unpack. Flick through 156 TV channels all of which are German speaking and most involve young women who want me to phone them. Watch 'Big Bang Theory' in German. Works for me.
19.30 Walk 50m to local bar for supper. Try and write something witty for blog while eating something that I thought was chicken but turns out to be meat that bears some relation to ham, gherkins and some white vegetable.
20.30 Return to hotel room. Stare at wall.
21.30 Fall asleep with I Pad playing French cop show Spiral  (excellent) resting on my nose.

Black Sea or Bust - Day 9 - Obermuhl to Linz (48km)

The hotel at Obermuhl is one of the best. It's light, bright and the lady owner is cheerful despite the fact that business is abysmal. In fact I have been the sole guest in the last three hotels at which I have stayed. The location is superb, my head on the pillow is no more than thirty feet from the Danube and if I am at my window and lean forward a little I can see a couple of miles downstream.

It's raining again as I set off, I only have to go a few kilometres before the path vanishes and I have to do some more negotiation to do with a ferryman. The ferry is on the far side but there is a telephone link.
"Can you pick me up please?"
"How many of you are there?"
"No. You will have to wait until someone else comes."
I look back up the path as far as the drizzle permits. Not a sign of life and I barely saw a living soul yesterday. Will I have to stay here, get a job, contract a bigamous marriage and have children before I can cross? After ten minutes I try again.
"It's still just me."
"If you pay 4 euros I'll come."
I look at the fares listed on the notice board. The normal fare is 3 euros. Oh for God's sake!
"Yes I'll pay 4 euros. Please come now".
So I progress through a wet morning. Every twenty kilometres or so on the Danube there is a massive hydro-electric dam with accompanying locks for shipping access. Each one looks entirely appropriate for a setting for Wagner's Ring Cycle though, now I think about it, that's been done before.

The landscape opens up once more as we near Linz and it's not far to go as I have allowed myself a half day off and I am at my hotel at lunchtime. I have treated myself in this respect also having booked into the modern, glassy Steigenberger Hotel, where the staff are pleasingly obsequious when I arrive despite the fact that both Doris and I are distinctly mud spattered.
In the afternoon the sun comes out, I 'do' the Lentos art gallery and have a stroll round the town. I have very good salad for dinner and a all in all a good end to the day.

Friday, 24 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 8 - Vilshofen to Obermuhl (70.7 Km)

On the principle that what goes up must go down, there was a high speed, poultry scattering, free-wheel down the hill back to the Danube straight after breakfast. Then an attractive run along the right bank to Passau the last city before Austria. I am there by 12.00 so have time to dump the bags at the station and have a stroll. Passau sits on a narrow spit of land between the rivers Danube and Inn and it's an attractive town, not as cute as most that I've been through. It looks as if real people might live there. No it's better than that, it's a proper German town where, if you were an escaping WW2 British POW, you might change trains on your way to the Swiss Border. There are decent antique shops, I buy a few postcards just to keep my hand in and then take in Museum of Modern Art housed in a superb 18th century building. Some of the content is OK but not worthy of the gallery itself.

The hills close in on the Danube after Passau, the scenery improves and the river moves faster. Ten kilometres downstream we pass into Austria, the border is virtually unmarked apart from a rusty sign nailed to an oak tree. This is the new Europe, I have only shown my passport once on this trip and that was at St Pancras. A big bonus however becomes immediately apparent. The Danube Path signage is now in the hands of the Austrians, probably the Upper Austrians, but their signs, while not much bigger than the hated Bavarian variety, are a model of bold and functional design. Do I detect a Secessionist influence or perhaps a touch of Bauhaus. No, I'm talking bollocks, they're just signs for God's sake but at least you can read these. The scenery gets better and better while the weather gets worse.

A bit further on we get to one of those points where there is no more path, the side of the valley becomes cliff and you have to cross the river. There are no bridges here in the middle of nowhere but there are lots of tiny ferries which can carry a maximum of twelve passengers with bikes. I have consulted my map and know that the ferry at which I have arrived goes either straight across depositing me on the opposite side to my hotel or a couple of kilometres further downstream on the same side as my hotel. There are two men aboard, the driver and a younger man, a trainee perhaps. Knowing that these ferries hate going virtually empty I enter negotiations.
"Can you take me down the river please?"
"Is it just you?" they ask. Perhaps they think that I am an outrider, a trail blazer,
 for the Buenos Aires Ladies Cycling Club. They hope that at any moment fifty or sixty stout Argentinian matrons will come strenuously pedalling round the corner.
"Yes it's just me"
"Oh" they say "perhaps someone else will come".
"No I don't think so" I haven't seen a single other cyclist on the Path since I left Passau. "I am alone on the road".
They sigh. "We can take you across"
"No. I have to go downstream" I point. They look more disappointed.
"Where are you staying?" They ask. I tell them.
"Oh right." After some shrugging I am invited on board.
We chug out into mid stream for what turns out to be a glorious twenty minute trip. Once we are around the first curve all signs of human existence vanish, the forest comes right down to the water and for a minute or two I am Fitzcarraldo (younger readers should refer to Wikipedia at this point) on his tramp steamer on the Amazon. Birds circle above the trees, did something move in the undergrowth? In the film the tension mounts as the boat rounds curve  after curve without any sign of life until finally Fitzcarraldo and the crew are confronted by a barricade of canoes packed with menacing local Indians. For a moment the image flashes into my head, just around the next corner will be a mass of locals in canoes, wearing lederhosen, Tyrollean hats and little red waistcoats, all will be brandishing asparagus spears.
The younger man speaks goodish English and we chat.
"Two Englishmen passed this way two days ago" he tells me. "They cycled all the way from London and are going to the Black Sea.". I feel inadequate so we go on to the weather and how bad business is. They drop me four kilometres from my Hotel.

Black Sea or Bust - Day 7 - Worth to Vilshofen (98 km)

A sunny start with a bit of shopping in the petrol station next to the hotel, there are almost no local shops in the villages that I pass through. I need water but also I like to have mixed nuts and raisins, trail mix or something. I have had difficulty finding this sort of stuff but now I have discovered that it comes under the heading of 'studenten futterer' which means student feed which is delightful. The first town on my route is Straubing, which has a charming cobbled marketplace, ancient timbered houses, a Rathaus of note and a matchless Baroque church but I couldn't see a Bratwurst stall anywhere so I kept going. Scenically a dull day, even Mother Danube (or should that be Father?) is being a bit of a Plain Jane today.

So, at last, I have time to tell you what I brought along to read on this trip. "No books surely! You have an I Pad don't you?" I hear you cry. Well yes but I have never really enjoyed reading off a screen so I have compromised. On paper Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies has just come out in paperback. Imagine! A Booker winner that is a storming read. I have a charity shop copy of an ancient paperback Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, which sounds like hard work but is quite lively, Across the Plains, by Robert Louis Stevenson, a battered leather-bound collection of travel pieces, the title piece being an account of crossing the USA by train in the early eighteen nineties. Finally I have copy of Twelfth Night a play that I have never seen, read nor worked on. It is an Arden edition with  lots of notes explaining who is who, what it all means and which folio sheet Shakespeare wiped his bum on. On the I Pad I have Claudio Magris Danube and the Lonely Planet Guide to Austria for reference. I also have Patrick Leigh Fermor's Between the Woods and the Water, the second part of his account of a walk across Central Europe in the nineteen thirties, but more pertinently Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel, his sequel to Three Men in a Boat. It is a humorous account of the same three characters from the earlier novel, which is genuinely very funny, whereas  Bummel, which is an account of a German cycling trip, is not, but it is relevant to what I am doing. En route I have bought some German railway magazines so that I have some pictures to look at in bed.

At the end of Day 7 there is a good news/bad news moment. The good news is that the Pension I am booked in is nearly 10 km closer than I thought but the bad news is that it is up in the hills above the river, a murderous climb in the rain at the end of the day. The Pension is deserted apart from me.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 6 - Bad Gogging to Worth (68 km)

I flee Das Bates Motel after a shabby breakfast, the first section is dull and suburban, but then at Weltenburg Abbey the path stops and a ferry takes over for five kilometres through the spectacular Danube Gorge. The cliffs are made up of limestone rocks in fantastic shapes, sculpted over the millennia by the relentless action of Mother Danube.  A number of German artists and men-of-letters have wasted their time and talent inventing legends to go with these formations. Suffice it to say this  is the most impressive scenery so far. On top of the cliffs, just before Kelheim, is the Hall of Liberation, built by Bavarian King Ludwig I to commemorate the War of Liberation against Napoleon in 1813. It is also a monument to German kitsch, a wedding cake on a cliff.

A pleasant ride to Regensburg, the biggest city since Ulm, which possesses the oldest bridge on the Danube. This river, which starts near France and ends in the Black Sea, is unfordable for most of its length and effectively divides northern Europe from the south so bridges play a huge part in its history. There are legends about the building of some of these bridges but I am not sure to which town this particular one relates. In the Middle Ages it seems to have been standard custom and practice for the builder or architect of a major project, when confronted by a lagging schedule and penalty clauses that might mention decapitation, to to do a deal with the Devil. In the case in question the Devil agreed to help complete the job if he were able to claim the souls of the first two to cross the bridge. The cunning builder agreed and on opening day he held everyone back except for a rabbit and a hen who went over first. As they passed the midpoint there was an explosion of Satanic wrath but nothing more, the builder had got away with it. You could argue that the Devil might say that what had been done did not fall in with the spirit of his agreement with the builder and in any case as the Devil, the personification of Evil, he will be more likely to welch on a deal than any other being and fry the builder's arse.  This story raises a more interesting point. Do animals have souls? Google that question and stand well back. Apparently "Many Christians ask 'Will I see my pet in heaven'?" A perfectly logical question from where I am sitting.  For me if humans have souls then so do animals but is there a line to be drawn? Do we stop at mammals? Do sturgeon have souls? Do amoeba have souls? What about those slugs crossing the tarmac in search of love, surely they must have souls. But I don't understand what the word 'soul' really means and again Google will effortlessly deliver an avalanche of opinions so I will leave it to Wilson Pickett who certainly does exemplify what  'soul' means in his recording In the Midnight Hour. Anyway these are the things that one thinks about when cycling in steady drizzle.

An unexciting run on from Regensburg to the night's hotel at Worth am Donau, though I must have been looking knackered when I arrived as a very pretty girl rushed out of reception and seized my bags and insisting on carrying them upstairs to my room. The hotel was also the only restaurant in town and it purported to be Greek and worse I had to break two golden rules of travel, the obvious "don't eat in your hotel" but also Bill Bryson's rule "never eat in a restaurant that has photographs of its dishes outside". The restaurant was plastered with yellowing snaps of moussaka and souvlaki. Dinner was disgusting.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust Day 5 - Marxheim to Bad Gogging (81 km)

A glorious morning, a Sunday, and as I freewheel down towards the river church bells are ringing in all the nearby villages, I pass formally dressed families on their way to church. You never hear a peal of bells as you do in England, here the bells just toll. There is nothing to match the sound of the bells of St Martins in the Fields as you come out of Charing Cross tube for a 9.00am Sunday work call at the Coliseum.

Most of the day's ride is along the banks of the Danube and mostly through woodland. There are two towns of note, Neuburg and Ingoldstadt. The former is full of architectural gems that I didn't stop to look at. Ingoldstadt is famous for it's beer which I did stop to try. Reputedly this is the best beer in Germany and while my opinion of German beer is that it's alright in its way but it all tastes the same, I will admit that what I sampled in Ingoldstadt  was very good indeed. The original Frankenstein novel is set here.

In the afternoon the rains came, the path turned to mud and at some point I missed a sign which resulting a two kilometre excursion down a spit of land that ran parallel to the bank, a dead end. There was nothing for it but ride bank and the rain bucketed down. At this point I thought "Why the fuck am I doing this?"

The afternoon became pure drudgery alternately on a muddy path or on busy roads. I was happy to get to Bad Goggingen, my destination for the night, but the Pension that I was booked into was unimpressive. The place was deserted but the front door was open. There was note on the bannister telling me that I was in Room 18 and that breakfast was at 7.30. There was a smell about the place and as I prepared to lug my bags upstairs I noticed movement behind the frosted glass of the kitchen door. I tapped on the glass. No reply so I went upstairs feeling that there was just a touch of 'Das Bates Motel' in the air. Nylon sheets! No soap! Overwhelming smell from cowshed next door! When I went downstairs a little old lady came out of the kitchen muttering to herself, she followed me around, still muttering, until I left for supper, another German stage-weight special. If I keep this up I will be the fittest 28 stone man in Europe.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 4 Gunzburg to Marxheim (88 Km)

 Gunzburg is probably the prettiest of the towns that we have passed through but then they are all very pretty and perhaps, like Cotswold villages, once you've seen one you've seen 'em all. But this morning is glorious, cloudless but with a cooling breeze. The very best possible cycling weather. The first part of the day is a long run along the northern bank of the Danube and if I have ever had a fantasy about this trip (and I have) then this is it completely realised. Early morning sunshine, birdsong all around, both banks heavily wooded and the Danube looking .... well blue. Absolutely blue.

There is a flat agricultural section away from the river but soon we are in Dillingen, another fairy-tale (spare no cliches) cobbled street town with steeply roofed timbered houses, an onion domed church and a Rathaus (town hall) with a stork's nest on its chimney. But let's just pause for a moment and discuss cobbles. What bastard invented these? They are probably one of the "things that the Romans did for us". If you are a cyclist they are torture, particularly if your bottom is showing signs of wear a mere four days into this trip. However   I must tell you something that reflects the very masochistic essence of being a cyclist. Just before I set out on this trip I was browsing (I didn't buy) the cycling magazines in W H Smith's at Waterloo. In one of those magazines was an announcement of a forthcoming event in Belgium from Antwerp to Hoogveligning or somewhere and the whole route and indeed the whole point of the event was that it took place entirely on cobbles. You may think that I am daft cycling 50 miles a day for three weeks but that surely takes the biscuit.

The main interest for me today is at Hochstadt and in particular the Second Battle of Hochstadt. What a coincidence that they had two battles here, for all I know there were more. Perhaps it had a good reputation as a battle field and warring powers would book a fixture there. It is as flat as a pancake so neither side could complain of not getting a level playing field. However it comes nowhere near matching the River Isonzo in north eastern Italy. During World War One there were no less than twelve battles of the Isonzo, most of which involved the unfortunate Italian troops assaulting carefully prepared Austro-Hungarian positions along the Alpine watershed. The odds were so unequal that in the early days of the war merciful Austrian officers would order their troops to cease fire and shout down to the Italians below "For Gods sake stop! If you keep coming we will shoot you all". At which point the Italians would retreat back to their trenches. Such gallantry didn't last long. This front yielded the highest percentage of casualties per capita of troops involved of any front anywhere in WWI. Back to the Second Battle of Hochstadt which we British know as Blenheim which is an Anglicisation of 'Blindheim' a tiny village just to the east of Hochstadt. Here the Duke of Marlborough and his Austrian ally Prince Eugene of Savoy defeated a French and Bavarian army in 1704 changing the course of history. From this tiny village of Blindheim which consists of just a few houses and a church (which has a commemorative plaque) we have Blenheim Palace, umpteen Blenheim Roads, Terraces, Streets, I had a flat in Blenheim Gardens half way up Brixton Hill once. We have towns called Blenheim in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada. There are window cleaners, ranges of stationery and power boats, wineries, laundromats, aircraft, ships etc etc all named from this cluster of houses. While we are at it we might briefly discuss what this battle, part of the War of the Spanish Succession was about. The British with their European Allies (the Grand Alliance) were trying to prevent the French king Louis XIV from imposing his nomination on the vacant Spanish crown. How absurd! What on earth were all those British troops, most of whom had walked to Blindheim from Flanders, doing fighting this battle so far from home. Oh hang on a moment, don't we have British troops in Afghanistan fighting to prop up a distant foreign regime. It just shows that not much has changed in 300 years.

Onward from Blindheim to Donauworth where I stopped for coffee and ice cream served by a Brazilian waiter who, when he discovered that I was English, asked me if I knew the Charing Cross Road. He reminisced happily about his time working in a Brazilian cafe about 100 yards down from the Phoenix Theatre and almost next to Blackwells.

The sun was still shining and Doris was humming contentedly between my thighs (not a sentence that I will write very often I think) and bed was in another tiny village called Marxheim.  Nothing to do with Karl as far as I know. A good supper in a pretty hotel/restaurant. Asparagus is in season here and the soup was sensational.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Day 3 Munderkingen to Gunzburg (84.5 Km)

An early start on a grey morning, early enough that when I get to the market place in Ehingen the shops are just opening, there is a bustle of shutters rattling and morning  shoppers. The rain starts and I am in for a wet run and more flat Norfolk scenery. The Danube Path is erratic. Sometimes it will take you right through the centre of a town and at the next take you on a zig-zag path through the outskirts past tennis courts and across industrial estates. On this particular section there is an alternative scenic route through the Blautal (the Blue Valley) but it is 10km longer and with the rain now setting in I decide to give it a miss. There is no one else on the Danube Path that morning apart from a lot of large black slugs inching their way across the tarmac. What was it that impelled them to set out from a vast area of presumably edible vegetation, a positive mollusc Serengeti, and undertake a hazardous journey, exposed to predators and inattentive cyclists all the way, only to arrive at another identical mollusc Serengeti? You might theorise that slugs are just plain stupid and once they set off in any particular direction they just keep going until they bump into something that they like to eat. Or are these particular slugs the Columbus's of their species, happy to set off across an ocean of tarmac on the off chance of an Eldorado on the other side? Will they return to where they started from to report back to their less adventurous fellows. No. Surely the answer must be sex. It must be the case that they can smell an alluring female on the other side? How does your slug smell? I don't know, he's got no nose.

I arrive in Ulm at 2.00pm, go straight to the Hauptbahnhof, dump my bags in a locker, chain Doris to some railings and head for the city centre. Ulm has some 'previous' in Irwin family history. In the mid nineteen sixties the family were on a camping holiday driving to Venice I think. My father was always one for 'pushing on' as far as possible every day. He wouldn't stop driving until my mother lost her temper. On this particular occasion she lost her temper in Ulm and we stopped at a hotel bang in the city centre, a Protestant throw from the Cathedral. We checked in, taking our bags up to the room and then my father, following directions from the desk clerk, went to park the car In the hotel car park. As he exited the car park he took a wrong turn and promptly got lost and worse he had not made a note of the hotel's name. He returned more than an hour later accompanied by a jolly leather coated German policeman and dog having visited most of the hotels in central Ulm. I remember the Cathedral well, it has the highest spire in Europe and you can climb the 750 odd steps to the top if you wish to. Having just cycled 30 kilometres in driving rain I decided against this and went in search of lunch and Wi-Fi. I had a delicious fish and some excellent Wi-Fi in a trendy bar. Later I walked round the outside of the cathedral and wished that my children were with me, partly because I missed them and partly so that I could explain what flying buttresses are and point out the excellent animal gargoyles.

My reading has revealed many facts, both interesting and uninteresting, about Ulm. I am interested in military history and a bit of a Napoleon fan and it was at Ulm in 1805 that he so totally outmanoeuvred the 'unlucky' General Mack, commander of the Austrian army, that the latter was compelled to surrender with barely a shot fired. It was also at Ulm that the World War Two Field Marshal Rommel was given a state funeral in 1944. He was implicated in the failed Von Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler and because he was such a heroic public figure the Nazi regime gave him the option of taking poison, which he did, rather than risk public a trial and public exposure of his treachery. He got a state funeral having 'died of wounds received in the service of the Reich'. Claudio Magris in his book Danube takes Rommel to task for believing that it was more important to avoid the disastrous effect on the morale of the German military that a trial would have caused. But surely Magris is being naive, the Nazis would have happily watched him die on a meat hook and still say that he died of 'wounds received....'. At the other end of the Nazi social scale Magris tells us of the fate of a young brother and sister, Hans and Sophie Scholl, who printed and distributed anti-Nazi manifestos and who were executed in 1943. One other wartime fact about Ulm is that of the city's 12,795 buildings only 2,633 survived Allied bombing intact.

When you cross the river at Ulm you leave Baden-Wurttemberg and enter Bavaria. At that point the signposting of the Danube Path goes to Hell in a handcart. Whoever is in charge of the Bavarian signage is not fit to wash the car of the guy from Baden-Wurtemberg. The signs become tiny, hard to spot, badly placed, ambiguous. I will have to be more alert from now on.

Doris and I had a pleasant and uneventful run to Gunzburg, a very pretty town whose attractions were only marred that night when I read that it was the birthplace of Joseph Mengele, the bestial Doctor of Auschwitz. For what it's worth I ate Wiener Schnitzel and chips that night, the chips were excellent.

Black Sea or Bust - Day 2 - Beuron to Munderkingen (86 Km)

A grim start to the day. After breakfast in the Museum of Modern Kitsch I push Doris through steady rain a mile or so to the nearest railway station. the only upside (and there always is one) is that my wet weather gear appears to work well. I heave a fully laden Doris onto the train which takes us 9 km up the valley, then another mile's walk to the bike workshop. I ring the bell and a cheery head pops out of an upstairs window. I gesture toward Doris's broken bits, he winces. He comes down and winces more as he inspects Doris more closely. Not only is the gear system wrecked so are very specific mounting plates and the bits that they bolt to on Doris are bent. He speaks good English which is a mercy as my 'get through the day' German doesn't run to gear ratios and wheel centring. I start to babble about leaving Doris and renting another bike for the length of time it takes to fix her. I am prepared if necessary to buy a new bike. I am desperate, I am as locked into my schedule as the German armies were locked into their train timetables as they invaded France and Belgium in World War One. Heinz, I looked up his name on the internet later, is looking round his workshop muttering "Maybe, maybe". He strips off the broken bits then holding one of the vital mounting plates he offers it up in turn to the other cycles in his shed until he finds one that almost matches. Slowly he cobbles together something that will work and he has a Shimano gear system in stock that is better than my original. Forty five minutes later Doris and I are back on the road. Heinz is a great and good man and should your bicycle break down in Hausen look no further.

The Danube gorge continued for about 25 km, the limestone cliff tops dotted with schlossen, shrines and follies. The rain that had been unrelenting all morning petered out as I arrived in Sigmaringen. I spotted a Bratwurst stall on the outskirts and screeched to a halt. I love bratwurst, when I was working in Cologne for six weeks on We Will Rock You there was scarcely a day when I didn't pop across the road to Mr Wurst in the Hauptbanhof food court. This Sigmaringen sausage was particularly welcome after a tough morning.

The Danube valley opens out at this point, though the river itself looks no more impressive than the River Wey at Godalming, the hills recede into the distance and suddenly there is a lot of sky. I could be on a cycling tour of Norfolk with vast open fields stretching into the distance though I have not seen any signs of inbreeding among the locals. Apparently you have to go up into the mountains or to Switzerland to see that sort of thing. It's still a grey day with nothing to see, nothing to distract one from the sheer tedium of cycling, not a gear change in an hour. I don't listen to music on headphones partly because I like to hear what is going on around me and partly because I left my headphones on the kitchen table at home so I sing a bit. The Eton Boating Song is good for cycling and my background in musical theatre has given me a lot of material to murder. Sadly I am not very good at remembering the lyrics so I end up la-la-la-ing. Oklahoma is a favourite, followed perhaps by a bit of West Side Story and I am sure that Dr May and MrTaylor would enjoy my version of Under Pressure.

Finally I make it to the pretty market town of Munderkingen where I am booked in for the night. The lady at the hotel tells me that I am booked into their 'Chocolate' room. The walls are chocolate brown and white, the pillows are chocolate brown, there are photographs of chocolate on the walls and on the ceiling there is giant plastic chocolate bar partially unwrapped from its silver foil. How quaint I think as I stagger into the shower. I have done 86 km, admittedly nine of them by train but I seem to suffering no ill effects other than exhaustion.
I go out to eat and have a delicious pizza served to me by a cheerful lady called Gertrude. Gertrude has worked in this restaurant for 24 years. She tells me that she has a garden on an island in the middle of the Danube and that Wednesday is her day off and that she spends every Wednesday in her garden. She shows me her album with photographs that she has taken of her garden, the produce that she grows in it and the creatures that she shares it with. They are very beautiful photos. Gertrude is a happy and contented woman.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust: Day 1 - Donaueschingen to Beuron (62.5 km)

Any great river, worthy of the name, has a disputed source and the Danube is no exception. There is an ornamental pool in the town which is fed by a spring which, according to one of the books that I have read, only yields one cubic inch of water per minute. There are two streams, the Breg and the Brigach which unite with the cubic inch just to the east of Donaueschingen to form the Danube. Both these streams originate in sodden meadows further up the valley and both have a better claim to be the source than this effete pool. However some local dignitary has formalised the position and so it was to the ornamental pool that I went to start my journey. Easier said than done. The pool was in the middle of a building site and as I cycled onto the site all the workers there starting shouting "Verboten! Verboten!" Etc etc. I pleaded for two minutes and managed a couple of hasty photos before I was ejected. All of which was a bit of a disappointment. A send off from the local burgermeister was probably too much to hope for but perhaps there might have been some German OAPs starting a similar journey with whom I could have enjoyed some friendly banter. Something along the lines of "Oy Fritz what kind of a bike is that you've got there? Is it a Fokker." You know the sort of thing.

So there it is, an inauspicious start both for the Danube and me. I exited Donaueschingen through a pretty park and then rode for some miles through broad water meadows.
The route is mostly tarmac and is immaculately signposted. The man who organised the signposting even caters for those nagging doubts that crop up after you have been going for a while without seeing a signpost even though there have been no possible turnings.  At the very instant that these doubts start to surface in one's consciousness a reassuring sign will appear. It's almost magical. The Danube path is largely traffic free. Occasionally one has to join a road for a kilometre or two and often (deliberately) the route takes you through the middle of the small towns and villages that dot the banks of the river.
There is a railway line that runs along the valley and both it and the path cross and recross the Danube regularly as the topography of the valley demands. The path is almost deserted. There are a few elderly couples, one couple is English, who one overtakes and then is overtaken by if one stops for coffee or to take a photo. We wave cheerily at each other but don't stop to chat.

After lunch the valley closes up and limestone cliffs rear up on either side of the river but after a few kilometres the Danube literally vanishes. All that remain are muddy pools where the main watercourse should be. The river has seeped down into the porous limestone and for twelve kilometres it travels underground. Apparently the water spends 60 hours finding its way through the underground system before gushing out once more at a rate of 10,000 litres a second.
Then the sun comes out and it is a glorious afternoon, pedalling up and down a path that hugs the side of the spectacular cliffs, occasionally rising to take a shortcut over the top to cut off a loop of the river. I was hurtling down a gravel path with forest on one side and river on the other thinking that life doesn't get much better than this when Ptang! Doris pulled up suddenly, we skidded along sideways for a few yards before coming to an undignified halt. Something had caught in the rear wheel, a branch on the track perhaps but in any case Doris was mortally wounded. Her gear assembly had become entangled with the spokes of the rear wheel and was sheared in half. The gear mounting itself was also broken. I pushed a fully laden Doris the fives miles to Beuron where we were booked into a hotel. The hotel owner was sympathetic. He rang a bicycle repairman in the next village who said he could look at it in the morning. I had little faith that in a tiny village in rural Westphalia this man would have the parts to do the job. I went up to my room depressed and desperately trying to come up with Plan B. There is always a Plan B. I could rent a bike for as long as it took to fix Doris but that would mean trekking back to this village from somewhere hundreds of kilometres further on or I could just dump Doris (think the unthinkable) and buy a slut of a German bike. The one consolation of the day was the view from my third floor balcony across the valley to the onion domed abbey in the centre of the village. Later in the evening I watched through my binoculars while the
local volunteer fire brigade practiced their hose technique.

 I managed to avoid the worst excesses of the hotel menu by ordering Tortellini and salad but had to endure a CD which must have been titled The Worst Muzak Ever. Unspeakable, as was the decor in the dining room. In southern Germany every bar has its regulation issue clutter. Hunting trophies, alpine prints, kitsch religious carvings and so on, not unlike rural pubs in England with their horse brasses etc. But there was nothing old in this dining room everything was modern, almost new and had been carefully selected by someone (I blame the owner's wife, a ghastly woman) and every single item was hideous.
It was a relief to go to bed and have troubled dreams of Doris in the rough insensitive hands of some tattooed Westphalian cycle mechanic.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Getting to the Beginning

To get Doris on the same 7.01 Eurostar as me I had to check her in with Goods Despatch the night before but I was assured that she would be on the same train. I love travelling by Eurostar. It normally means that you are going somewhere interesting to do something interesting. At the very least wherever you go and for whatever reason at some point you will have a decent dinner.

At The Gare du Nord there was a drama. The attendant had told me that Doris would be in the compartment between coaches 9 and 10. When I went to retrieve her but the cupboard was bare. There were two Eurostar ladies with me and I could tell by the glances that they exchanged that a) this was not an unusual occurrence and that b) the outcome was unlikely to be good. Was Doris still in London or worse was she speeding towards Brussels? The ladies directed me to an office in a far flung corner of the station yard and then they fled. But all was well, in a shed by the office there was Doris. She had been put on a train the night before.

My next connection was with a TGV to Strasbourg from the Gare de l'Est just a few hundred metres from the Gare du Nord and I had two hours to kill so set off more or less at random until I came across the Canal de l'Ourcq and I cycled north along the tow path for a few miles, a canal ride is always a pleasant jaunt.

The one thing that must strike any Englishman travelling by train in France is just how empty it is. So it was on the TGV to Strasbourg, there were endless vistas of rolling agricultural land without a single house, farm or other sign of human habitation in sight. It's hard to think of any location in England where this would be the case. At Strasbourg's smartly facaded station I had only ten minutes to wait for the next connection. Doris and I sidled across the German border on a two car commuter
train. Then there was a sinuous train ride up the valley into the Black Forest finally arriving at Donaueschingen at 650m above sea level, the source of the Danube.

My hotel was exactly what you would expect it to be and holding fast to the first rule of travel I left to find somewhere else to eat. I decided to go traditional and go for a German protein rush dinner, pork, mushrooms, spatzli and vegetables, all inundated in cream sauces. Of its kind it was good but if    I were to eat this every night I would be at risk of death from constipation before I leave Germany's soil. The waitress, who may have been called Mitzi, was charming and at the table next to me three elderly couples were playing cards. One couple had neglected to bring along enough pairs of reading
glasses with them so as each hand was dealt the glasses were passed back and forth so that they could check their cards.

Black Sea or Bust - Preparation

What does it take to cycle 900 miles across Central Europe? Well a bicycle for a start. I was brought up in semi-rural Surrey and bicycles were as much a part of boyhood as Airfix  kits and Biggles, as fish paste sandwiches and Tizer. Then at some point riding across Chobham Common pretending to be the Cisco Kid lost its appeal and sex, drugs and rock and roll took over. So from the age of 15 until just a couple of years ago, I am now 63, I haven't owned a bicycle. On a holiday in Poland, a couple of years ago, I went for a ride with my brother-in-law and enjoyed it enough to buy a bicycle on my return. It was sturdy, cheap and cheerful, a hybrid, a cross between a trail bike and a road bike. I clattered along local canal tow paths and the country lanes around Basingstoke and thought "this is good". But when it came to this journey I thought it's time for an upgrade. I consulted cycling enthusiast friends who made suggestions and I ended up in a glossy modern shop called 'Specialized' in Newbury  where I met several good looking young men who insisted on being on first name terms from the moment I walked in. For a second or two I considered saying "It's Mr Irwin to you, you little shits" but I was distracted by the wonderland of bicycles around me. I explained to the good looking young men that I was planning to cycle the length of the Danube and when I had explained that the Danube was a long river in Europe they were impressed and helpful. I quickly parted with £400 and walked out with a shiny new Sirrus. This seemed to me to be a lot of money but most of the bikes in the shop were priced in the thousands. Was it worth it? Was the Sirrus that much better than my old bike? Yes it was. It's just like buying a new car. Your old car, with an ashtray, stuffed full of soggy Pay & Display tickets and an apple core, with rear seats stained with something from a best forgotten holiday and with a handbrake that you have little confidence in, may seem comfortable and homely but when you get a new car you realise just how good life can be. It all works, there are no knobs missing, the seats adjust and the radio can receive more than just BBC Berkshire. Well that's how my Sirrus seemed to me, lighter, smarter and better engineered than my old bike. Do I love my Sirrus? Yes I do and that's just as well as she(?) is all I have for company on this trip. What to call her?
Indefatigable Irish cycling traveller and writer Dervla Murphy calls her bike Gerald. I broached the subject to the children at supper, Maria suggested 'Doris' but seeing the look of contempt on Jack's face she quickly retracted saying that giving a bicycle a name was stupid. 'Doris' will do for me, if for no better reason than it is quicker to type "I chained Doris to the railings" than it is to type "I chained my bike to the railings".

So with Doris in place the next thing to do was a bit of training. In a book of Hampshire Cycle rides there is a circuit round the outlying villages around Basingstoke which, with the ride out to the start point, totals 43 miles and I have worked myself up to a point where I can complete this in around 5 hours without feeling too many ill effects other than a sore arse, a phrase that I suspect will come up frequently in the future. Again I consulted more experienced cyclists. "Ted you need to get yourself some padded lycra shorts". Lycra shorts. Old blokes don't look good in shorts let alone lycra shorts but they were right and I thank them for it. What to wear under the shorts? I am a boxer shorts person but they are hopeless, lots of seams and they ruck up and chafe. Ordinary briefs are better but after consultation with my wife I tried a pair of her knickers. Excellent, the way forward. Yes folks I am cycling down the Danube in ladies' underwear.

What to take with me? As little as possible obviously. I bought two smart pannier bags and I already had a small saddle bag. Apart from clothes, a few tools, a small first aid kit, a phone, a torch, a Hi-Viz jacket, an I-Pad, something to read on Danubian evenings, all I needed was a guide book. Stanfords have the very thing. Four volumes that cover the entire route, they have immaculate maps, a miraculous level of detail and fit into a map holder that velcros onto your handlebars. From these books I have booked accommodation all along the route based on my daily average of 50 miles. So there we are. All ready. What can possibly go wrong.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Black Sea or Bust - Cycling Down the Danube

'Late-onset cycling mania' is a common complaint in the twenty-first century. It strikes down men (mostly) who are either too old or too fainthearted to buy a motorcycle and take on a nineteen year old mistress.  I am a sufferer and suffer to such an extent that I am currently planning to cycle the length of the Danube, some 1700 miles in total. At an average of fifty miles a day that is 34 days on the road, with days off for blisters and tourism that makes six weeks away. My wife can't do without me for that long so I have decided to make the journey in two hits, the source (at Donaueschingen) to Budapest  in the spring and from Budapest to the Black Sea in the autumn. I have never in my life cycled fifty miles in a day and to plan to do so for a number of consecutive days might seem foolhardy but I am in training and the well established Danube cycle path is mercifully flat unlike the countryside that surrounds Basingstoke where we live near the top of a hill and any bike ride must end in a cardiac inducing climb. When I say well established I am perhaps understating the status of the Danube Cycle Path which is probably the most popular in Europe and is undertaken by many thousands of portly Germans every year. It takes in Ulm, Passau, Linz, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Belgrade  and the mosquito infested Danube delta. It passes through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Serbia and forms the border between Roumania and Bulgaria.

Why the Danube? Like so many things in my life it is all because of a book that I read.Unimaginatively called Danube, it was written by an Italian, Claudio Magris, and published in 1990. I picked it up at random,I was reading a lot of travel books at that time and was walking the canals of England, perhaps this would be a cultured towpath guide. Absolutely not. In many ways it is an irritating book, it purports to be an account of a trip like mine from source to delta, though the details, the mechanics of the journey, remain obscure. Sometimes he has companions, Amedeo, Maddalena, Maria, sometimes not. How does he travel? Train? Car? Does he actually travel at all? Did he write the whole thing in a library somewhere occasionally popping out to the payphone to call a Danubian station master or hotelier to check on local details or the weather? However it was created, Mr Magris certainly managed to pack in a great deal of intriguing information about those who fought, died, wrote, composed, tortured, loved or philosophised along the banks of the Danube and while bemoaning the lack of mystery and adventure in modern travel he includes the following sentence on page one "To be on the move, however, is better than nothing: one stares out of the window of the train as it hurtles into the countryside, one raises one face to the breeze and something passes, flows through the body." Maybe he did it by train.

For a while a 1700 mile walk appealed to me, influenced by Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water in which he describes a nineteen-thirties walk from the Channel to Constantinople. Instead I got married, had a family and forgot about such foolishness but Danube still had its place on the shelf in the downstairs loo and about eighteen months ago while browsing in Stanfords I came across a packet of maps, The Danube Cycle Path from Budapest to the Black Sea. Unputdownable. So then I started to search the secondhand book site Abe and bought almost anything with 'Danube' in the title. First I read Down the Danube  by Guy Arnold, published in 1989, written before the fall of Communism. He travelled by bus, train and barge and it's a dull rather sour read. He takes most pleasure in making cheap jokes about Germans which as we all know is as easy as shooting ducks in a bucket. Next I had a go at The Danube by Emil Lengyel. This is much more interesting, published in 1939 in the months between the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March and the fall of Poland in September, the maps that are the endpapers of the book show Czechoslovakia already absorbed into the Third Reich but Poland uninvaded. Lengyel, a Hungarian American historian, didn't write a travel book but did start his account of Danubian folklore and history at the source and work his way downstream with the emphasis being on the area out of reach of the Nazis, east of Vienna. Then there was Dawdling Down the Danube by Edward Enfield (Harry's Dad) who rode a bicycle from the source to Passau on the German border with Austria when he was deep into his seventies. A charming book and for me, ten years younger than he was, rather encouraging. I also bought a couple of duds. On the Banks of the Danube turned out to be a slim volume of verse in Hungarian by Attila Jozsef. The blurb on the back states that this collection ".....offers a faithful record of a courageous poetic voice defying despair and projecting far beyond the shadows cast by the harrowing circumstances of a tragic life". Straight to the charity shop I think. Finally I had a go at The Glance of the Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube) by Peter Esterhazy  is described as "not quite a novel, not quite a travel book" and which is probably avant-garde and to me at least incomprehensible.

That's enough bibliography. The mechanics of my trip are pretty straightforward. I travel with my bike to the source by train. Eurostar to Paris, TGV to Strasbourg, a local train across the German border to Offenburg and then another to Donaueschingen. I have booked hotels, gasthofs and pensions on the way. I am travelling alone and while it would be nice to be able to say that I am giving up my precious time and putting myself to a gruelling endurance test in a selfless attempt to raise funds for charity nothing could be further from the truth. I am doing this because I want to, for sheer pleasure. To be on the move is better than nothing. I love to travel and the fund raising, I am ashamed to admit, was an afterthought but a worthy one nevertheless. Here is the link to my 'Just Giving' page where you can donate to the Alzheimers Society should you wish to. . I start from the source on May 15th and should arrive in Budapest on June 3rd.


Cycling Down the Danube

Cycling Down the Danube
The Map